When we think of the machine that is recorded country music, it’s important to recognize the fact that much of the momentum that propelled the origin of the industry originated in the hills and valleys of Southwestern Virginia. The region’s rich cultural heritage provided much of the early repertoire of the burgeoning “Hillbilly Recording” market and its performers sent the industry into uncharted territory. If Henry Whitter was in fact the spark to ignite this flame, then it was the multifaceted Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, of Carol County, who served as the lynchpin that kept the wheels of this great machine rolling.
Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman was born May 25th, 1895 in Monarat (now Iron Ridge). With the aid of three musically inclined cousins, he began playing the autoharp at age 8 and took to the harmonica, guitar, and banjo soon thereafter. He married Hattie Foster in 1919 and relocated to Bluefield, West Virginia where he met none other than Henry Whitter. After hearing Whitter’s newly minted recordings from his Okeh sessions in 1924, Stoneman immediately began saving money to try his own luck and pursue recording in New York.
From here, the next leg of his journey is literally etched into the grooves of aural history. Stoneman recorded prolifically, documenting many important regional tunes, ranging from sacred songs to tragic numbers, and from sentimental pieces to traditional tunes. This massive output, recorded primarily under his own name along with The Dixie Mountaineers, led to substantial record sales that had only begun to wet the pallets of the record executives looking to take advantage of the newly founded country music market.
Stoneman’s commercial success inspired Ralph Peer, then of Victor Talking Machine Company, to initiate the now famous Bristol Sessions in hopes of engaging with new artists for the label’s roster and copywriting new material. Stoneman, acting as talent scout, informed Peer of regionally-known Blind Alfred Reed, who was then invited to attend the sessions in Bristol as well. Without this important connection, the music of Reed may have never been recorded. Stoneman’s extensive early recording no doubt had a ripple throughout the region of Southwestern Virginia, raising awareness for the plausibility of recording as a valid form of supplemental income, or even as a career.
As Corbin Hayslett of County Sales states: “Typically, [musicians throughout the region] knew each other, they were all interconnected… they knew each other and they interacted…”. No doubt, the familiarity of Stoneman’s success would have been known to the Shelor-Blackards, as well as J.P. Nestor, and others from the Plateau who also made their way to Bristol to record as a part of the 1927 sessions.
After the Bristol Sessions, Stoneman continued to record with various bands until the Great Depression and downturn in the industry caused him to stop recording. He and his family (including his nine children), moved to Washington D.C. through the 1930’s and 40s taking skilled factory and carpentry jobs to survive abject poverty. However, he and his family continued to make music, and returned to recording again in the mid-1950’s and 1960’s thanks in part to the boom of interest provided by the “folk revival”.
Enough cannot be said about Stoneman’s legacy, including the impact created by his extensive family legacy, which includes a myriad of career artists. Both Roni and Scotty Stoneman accrued substantial reputations: Roni, as a banjo picker and comedienne on HEE HAW, and Scotty, as a five time National Fiddle Champion and member of The Bluegrass Champs who made a notable impact on the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The family appeared regularly on the Grand Ole Opry through the 1960s, and ultimately the Stonemans won “Vocal Group of the Year” at the 1967 CMA Awards.
These formal accolades often overshadow the importance of Stoneman as a catalyst for the documentation of his peers in Southwest Virginia and the impact that this volume of recordings have made upon the world of traditional music and its ripples throughout tangential genres.
Read more about Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman in this article by Ivan M. Tribe – from The ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY MUSIC.